The book of Exodus (1:13) states, “The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites with cruel harshness”. How did the Israelites who lived in a climate of relative tolerance within Egypt suddenly become slaves to their Egyptian hosts?
In Exodus 1:9, Pharaoh notes with alarm the increasing numbers of Israelites: “Behold the Israelites are more numerous and stronger than we.” He sought a solution to what he perceived as Egypt’s Jewish Problem and decided to impose slavery. It would not, however, be logistically easy to force an entire nation into servitude. Not only were the Israelites numerous, they were spread out over the entire country (Exodus 1:5).
Pharaoh understood that it would be very difficult to simply pursue and place chains upon the Israelites. They could flee or resist, making the task extremely difficult. He sought a different approach.
“Come, let us outsmart them,” he said (Exodus 1:10), “lest they become numerous and join with our enemies, wage war against us and flee the land.” Pharaoh outwitted the Israelites by ensnaring them. By trapping them. He appealed to their sense of patriotism.
According to a source in the Talmud, he summoned the Israelites and asked them to assist him. He took a basket and a rake and started to make mortar for bricks. Whoever saw the king doing so followed suit, and in very little time all the Israelites were zealously making bricks just like their king.
As the day progressed and evening approached, Pharaoh suddenly set taskmasters over the Israelites and commanded them to count the bricks. He then ordered them to produce the same quota every day (Sota 11: A).
Pharaoh surmised that the way to entrap the Israelites was to play upon their desire for acceptance. They’d already been targeted and maligned in a propaganda campaign initiated by Pharaoh himself, who claimed the Israelites – descendants of the beloved Joseph, whose memory was still revered in Egypt – were becoming too powerful (Exodus 1:9, 10). Now his plan was to have the Israelites view this imposed workload as an opportunity to debunk the propaganda and charges of disloyalty.
The Talmudic sage Rabbi Elazar states that the biblical word used in reference to the bitter persecution of the Israelites, b’farech (Exodus 1:13) can also be read as b’feh rach, meaning a “soft approach” and implying the tact used by the cunning Egyptian king in dealing with the Israelites. It was the soft approach that made slaves of the Israelites.
The soft approach has been used time and again throughout Jewish history by those whose motives were less than pure. To cite just a few examples:
· Achashveirosh invited the Jews of Shushan to his feast and eventually became a partner to Haman’s diabolical plans.
· The Roman emperor Hadrian initially promised to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem but eventually persecuted the Jews and provoked the Bar Kochba revolt.
· The king of Portugal initially accepted Jews fleeing neighboring Spain following the expulsion of 1492, only to order their expulsion five years later, along with the eventual imposition of an inquisition.
· The French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte broke down ghetto walls and offered Jews emancipation in order to assimilate them.
· Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin initially spoke of equality but Russian Jews actually experienced a new nightmare, that of Soviet anti-Semitism.
· In the 1920’s, Wiemar Germany offered democracy but in the long run provided fertile ground for false hopes in pre-Nazi Germany.
Sometimes, the greatest danger to the Jews comes not from those who brandish swords, but from those who lull them into a false sense of security. When one knows who the enemy is and from where he’s coming, one can be alert to the dangers and prepare accordingly.